11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 39

Not just a recording angel

Robert Silver

GILBERT: THE MAN WHO WAS G. K. CHESTERTON by Michael Coren Cape, £12.95, pp.270


Athird-class carriage is a commun- ity; a first-class carriage is [for] ... her- mits'. Chesterton, despite his odd anti- Semitism, kinship with Belloc and bias for Mussolini, was a democrat in the wider sense — his best friends were cabbies, if not commuters. In his case, a wider sense Was the usual sense — intellectually, as Physically; thus, many jokes. A supreme character, a man of vast warmth and wit, often self-aimed, an erratic genius, a hero to Borges — these traits do not fully emerge in a new study, the fifth since 1973. The problem is that the writer is set on cutting GKC to a Procrustean size and on defending him there, via a view of a loving circle of family and friends around a harmless Catholic hero. He does not die in 1936; 'the long sleep' begins. The story, here, is sadder than it was — short on fizz, fun and ferment; the word 'love' occurs too often. In literary terms, GKC owes more to Wilde than Newman — thus his epi- grams. He cannot be reduced to Catholic- ism, any more than Shaw is only a Fabian ---- he is a franc-tireur in the march of 20th-century ideas, not an angel for affi- eionados.

Coren's book is low-key, kind and accu- rate — though he calls Edwin Montagu, the Liberal statesman, a Tory. But it adds little to other recent works; it does not probe or reassess. Chesterton's anti-Jewish jibes, dealt with at length here, cannot be explained away; they should be set in a longer Catholic context. Chesterton's fear was of ambiguity: running into a Jew, with an English surname, who didn't look like a stereotype, without knowing that he was.

In fact, despite the odd coup — his study of Aquinas, a few Father Brown stories his Catholic spell from 1922 was far less fertile. Spinning a line, out of touch with new trends (communism, fascism, modern- ism), he was caught, defending a circular dogma. If he belongs anywhere, it is to the moving comedy of ideas, to journalists, to literature — only last to the Church.

Despite early attacks on 'heretics' (Wells, Shaw, Yeats, Kipling), he was, at best, a heretic himself, by impulse, if not by doctrine — he preferred, Coren says, the Resurrection to the Crucifixion. Was he a spy, cast as a police agent (to play on the plot of The Man Who Was Thursday, his subtlest novel, alluded to in Coren's title)?

As a writer, he is now known as an Edwardian man of letters, with his gnomic detective tales and light verse satire. The pre-1914 tracts, Heretics and Orthodoxy, may be his best, least read works. His character overshadows his books — fat, absent-minded, swinging a swordstick down Fleet Street, penning poems, pieces or portraits (he trained as an artist) on postcards in pubs, pint in hand. Inge saw him as an 'obese mountebank'; the dust- flap's target, here, is his name as 'a knock-about-clown of gross proportions'. Coren's other focus is a label as a `right- wing man-about-town', an odd phrase should it be 'Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Knuts', as in the music-hall line?

Chesterton was on the anti-socialist Left — a radical, if backward-looking liberal, a romantic, a defender of underdogs (includ- ing Hitler's victims in the 1930s), deeply in love with a past seen as it wasn't, emo- tionally a mid-Victorian, in favour of its middle-class, English decencies — an ally of Soames Forsyte? — and against late- Victorian lordly decadence; at home, typi- cally, in post-1900, pre-war debates, clubs and ideas.

Thus his passion for the Boers, his hatred of privilege (`the rich in every country are the scum of the earth'), hypo- crisy (`chuck it, Smith'), and corruption (the Marconi affair) — and, with it, the vitriol for Edwardian Jews, felt to be unjust 'winners'. Like many radicals, he had a golden age. His was an era of peasant property, the Middle Ages (neither 'Bol- shevism nor Big Business'), wrongly con- flated with its later spin-off, 'bastard feudalism', the yeoman's heyday. With a surer sense of history, he would have fixed his focus on a real past. Pro-French, pro-Irish, anti-German, he wanted a pan- European Catholic axis, England happily resuming pre-Lutheran leanings.

`I never in my life said anything ... because I thought it funny; ... I may have thought it funny, because I ... said it'. He wasn't casually comic — laughter was a weapon. Thus, in Orthodoxy, he defends tradition as an extension of the franchise, `votes for our ancestors':

It refuses to submit to the small, arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about ... [it] objects to men being disqualified by the accident of death. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It's all regular — most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked by a cross.

The wit is verbal, lateral, even Jewish thus a tradition of genuine admirers, like Zangwill, Rabbi Wise, the American Zion- ist, and, now, Levin. Chesterton's secret is an eye for built-in paradox — 'poets do not go mad, but chess-players do', 'honour is ... a luxury for aristocrats, a necessity for hall-porters', 'progress — a comparative, of which we haven't settled the superla- tive'. It is also visual — the pun on stones and crosses. His objects took on timeless, Platonic traits as for mediaeval 'realists' 'where does a wise man kick a pebble? On the beach. Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest.'

His touch was light, even if his frame was heavy — maybe too light. He wrote too much — travel, theology, verse, novels, plays, biography, monthly pieces in the Illustrated London News for 30 years. His black bogey was the 'diabolists' of the artistic Nineties — as a writer, he retorted with simple adjectives, few adverbs. Adverbs are an adult reminder that an untidy world, with its own uncanny, comic turns, always moves on. After 1918, caught in Beaconsfield, he didn't. His poems may last, even if his prose lapses; they advance, as in 'the Rolling English Drunkard', even if they revert to square one, 'to Paradise by way of Kensal Green'.